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Cloud Atlas coverDavid Mitchell has a lot to answer for. He did not invent the multistranded time-hopping novel, but, with Cloud Atlas in particular, he did a lot to popularise it. The structure of that 2004 novel has famously been compared, not least by the author himself, [1] to a set of Russian nesting dolls as seen in cross-section: you read five beginnings, then a central and complete sixth story, and then, in reverse order, five endings. Probably Mitchell’s most striking innovation was to use this structure to span centuries: the outermost story is the earliest, set in the mid-nineteenth century, while the innermost is the latest, set an unspecified distance into the future. A web of both material and thematic connections between the stories reinforces their unity, and the combination of historical sweep, individual experience, and Mitchell’s fundamental gift for narrative impetus resulted in a novel that proved potent for both critics and the broader reading public (including me). It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Nebula Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, it was adapted into a film in 2012, and in its first decade it sold over half a million copies.

So it’s not surprising that other novelists have done a fair bit of experimenting along similar lines. I’m not aware of any who have replicated Mitchell’s structure exactly—it is rather distinctive, after all—but novels that include multiple stories set in different time periods, including both the past and future, and which then alternate between those stories, have cropped up with some frequency over the last couple of decades. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) is another high-profile example, for instance, although her structure is more fluid than Mitchell’s. Perhaps the most common strongly patterned manifestation is the structure that Kim Stanley Robinson and Monica Byrne have termed, with reference to Byrne’s own novel The Actual Star (2021), as braiding, in which multiple stories and multiple time periods are rotated in a strict order. [2] In the case of The Actual Star that means starting with part of a story set in 1012, then moving to 2012, then to 3012, and then repeating.

A simple notation might help to contrast this structure with that of Cloud Atlas: if we use [P] to indicate the present, or the strand set closest to when the novel was published, and the letters A to O to indicate strands set before the present (with A being the earliest), we can reserve the letters Q to Z to indicate strands set after the present (with Z being the latest)—and Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star, however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on). Other novels to have used a three-strand braid include Ian McDonald’s Brasyl (2007) and Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (2015, translated into English 2017). Each of these starts their pattern in a different time period, and it’s worth noting that as a result each achieves slightly different effects. By starting in the past, the cycles in The Actual Star felt to me at least like the tide coming in, with each cycle pushing all three strands a little further on, all equally important, building towards a conclusion that unifies the stories. In contrast McDonald starts in the present ([P]ZA), immediately positioning past and future as bracketing the “real” world—a clever move for what is ultimately a multiverse novel— and Lunde starts in the future (ZA[P]), thus telling us, with appropriate certainty for an environmental warning, that her story has an endpoint, and everything else is leading up to it.

This general topic—of how stories can be organised within a novel to manage reader expectations and emotions—is a big one. What I’m working around to introducing here is my interest in another specific structure that is also common but which I think doesn’t yet have a name. This is strange, because in fact I think the structure is becoming more common, perhaps particularly among writers published outside SF. Mitchell once again provides a widely read model: The Bone Clocks (2014), like Cloud Atlas, contains six stories, and like Cloud Atlas stretches from the past, through the present, into the future, albeit over a more compressed span—a single human life, one of the titular “bone clocks.” But this time the stories are arranged linearly, like beads on a single thread, rather than multiple threads entwined (or, ABC[P]YZ). The simplest variation of this form is equivalent to a single cycle from The Actual Star—the A[P]Z structure as found in, for instance, Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (2005), CoDex 1962 by Sjón (2016, translated by Victoria Cribb in 2018), or To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (2022)—but most examples are iceberg stories, with more weight in the past than the future, like Katie Ward’s Girl Reading (2011; ABCDE[P]Z). Some, like James Smythe’s I Still Dream (2018; A[P]WXYZ), are also structured by a human life; others, like Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, by an entire family (2019; ACBDEFGH[P]Z); still others take something more abstract as their unifying principle, like the idea of a specific type of community in Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012; AB[P]Z), or the entire history of mammalian life in Stephen Baxter’s Evolution (2002, with very nearly too many segments for my notation: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO[P]XYZ). And there are of course novels that contain other structural motifs within an overall linear progression, such as Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018), which incorporates a braid into its early sections, but like all of these examples concludes by tipping over into the future.

It’s that tipping-over that gives novels with this structure, for me at least, a distinctive affect: the compelling sense that, for one reason or another, they cannot be fully resolved without extrapolation. These are novels that insist the past and present will have consequences in the future that must be shown. What follows is an exploration of ways to understand and describe what this structure of fiction does to me as a reader, and why, and how. Parts two and three of this essay are reports from my investigations of relevant fiction and criticism; part four is a worked example.

Overshoot coverNaming helps me with understanding, or at least makes it easier for me to point at the structure that I’m talking about without using the entire alphabet, so I want to find a name for this structure. I don’t think one currently exists, but science fiction criticism does offer various terms that help with triangulation.

All of the novels I’ve mentioned so far, for instance, are examples of what Ursula K. Le Guin termed “mosaic” novels, works in which multiple narratives are arranged to form a larger whole; [3] but mosaic novels can be set all in one time, or indeed move backwards as well as forwards—they do not necessarily have the sort of linear chronology I’m exploring here. Similarly, Ursula Heise has written about “time leaps” and “serial protagonists” as strategies that can be used within mosaic novels to explore human agency; [4] but these techniques, although they certainly feature in the novels mentioned above, are also found in novels and series that take place wholly in a distant future, such as Asimov’s Foundation. [5]

The concept of future history, then, has some obvious purchase here. It’s not uncommon for science fiction novels to explain how their futures came to be, and in this sense these novels invert SF’s usual balance of roadmap and future: in this understanding, what is distinctive about them is not that they are realist narratives with SF tacked on the end, but that they are “if this goes on” SF stories that actually show us the “this” first. (Or, put another way, we are shown both the fucking around and the finding out.) The momentum I’ve described, that tipping-over point, is familiar from Kim Stanley Robinson’s concept of a slingshot ending, [6] which leaves the reader on a trajectory towards an outcome without stating it on the page; the closing chapters of the novels I’m discussing often have a slingshot feel, but because said chapters usually coincide with the transition from present to future, stating the outcome on the page is a way of binding the future and the present into one. And that may be necessary because many of these novels involve worlds going wrong, and characters catching on to that trajectory too late; but equally they are rarely outright apocalyptic, which is to say that many of them end by segueing from our world into the start of what has been called, after Will McIntosh’s 2011 novel, [7] a soft apocalypse.

So, one option for a label is simple description: these novels are chronological mosaics. I find that rather unsatisfying, however. I’d prefer to try to convey how the reading experience feels; and the word that has haunted me for that purpose is overshoot, which I think goes some way to capturing the particular combination of momentum and consequence that I’m interested in.

Researching other uses of overshoot in literary contexts, I came across the final novel by Mona Clee, an American writer who published a modest body of SF between 1985 and 1998. Overshoot-the-novel turns out to contain within it an almost paradigmatic overshoot narrative: the episodic life story of the forthright, pragmatic Moira Janelle Burke, from her childhood in 1950s San Antonio, Texas (the same as her author), through youthful travels and her life in the Bay Area of the 1980s and 1990s, up to the point at which humanity starts to step back from the brink of climate collapse in the 2040s. We travel with her to 1970s London, where she meets a graduate student in medieval history and mythology, Miles, who evangelises to her about the adaptability of archetypes like the Green Man:

“For the purpose of what?”

“Of responding to the peril,” he continued. “The archetype’s purpose is to stop us ravaging the environment before it’s too late. [...]”

It had been five years since I’d read The Limits to Growth and that other Paul Erlich book about population, but I hadn’t forgotten either one of them. I could almost buy into what this guy was saying—and it disturbed me. (p. 101)

Their discussion of the relationship between mythology and the environment continues for most of a chapter, and draws in early Green politics, Le Guin’s 1974 essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”, and cheeky anticipations of the future (“Today there are at least two proposals for Robin Hood television series floating around in the British film community. One’s for a comedy, in which a feminist Maid Marion leads a band of Merry Men” [p. 103]). The use of real historical touchstones and cultural references in service of building a political framework for the story reminded me a little of parts of Ken MacLeod’s contemporaneous Fall Revolution quartet (1995-1999), which includes chapters, particularly in The Stone Canal, set in the real 1970s and 1980s. As in MacLeod’s books, the past is used as setup: the elements of Moira’s life that will become important are signposted to a much greater degree than they are in, say, The Bone Clocks. It is no spoiler to say that Miles and his beliefs are important to the novel’s eventual denouement.

Subsequently, Miles takes Moira out of London to the stone circle at Avebury, where she participates in a pagan ritual and becomes “vividly aware of the feel of the Earth beneath me” (p. 126); perhaps a little stunned by this experience, Moira refuses Miles’s invitation to stay in the UK, and returns to the US, first to Austin, and later to San Francisco, where she lives for most of the 1980s, working as a lawyer. She meets another man, Li, a visiting law professor from China, who like Miles has one eye on the future:

I simply found it beyond all reason that (a) there could exist such a creature as a Chinese ecowarrior and (b) I had managed to locate and fall in love with him.

One day I surveyed all the books on ecology in Li’s apartment and finally asked, “Why are you so interested in this stuff?”

Li considered. “Because I am a patriot, and China stands to suffer a great environmental crisis in the future.” (p. 175)

But Moira herself has not yet crossed the Rubicon. She donates to Greenpeace—“Greenpeace had plenty of people who weren’t afraid to be activist, and I had plenty of money. That was what you called complementarity” (p. 181)—but declines to get directly involved herself. And so in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre (information about which is partly received in the US, in some very effective sequences, via early Usenet discussions), she struggles to understand why Li returns to China. She is devastated by his inevitable disappearance, although like Miles, Li is not gone from the narrative for good.

Moira’s life continues through the 1990s. She marries an older man, partly for the security of his wealth. She still declines to become activist herself, but she does begin what she describes as her “<<THUD>> file”—a collection of news clippings that she likens to the ripples in water caused by the approach of the T. rex in Jurassic Park, which is particularly eerie to read at this distance because I am reasonably sure that the examples we are shown include multiple genuine news articles from the time; certainly the dates and details of various heat waves and hurricanes are real, as is the first IPCC report to formally attribute climate change to human activity, in 1995. And the pace of disaster, as Moira notes, has been increasing over the span of her life:

During the 1990s, we had seen an average of thirteen tornadoes a year in the Golden State. That was up from six a year in the 1980s, four per year in the 1970s, three per year in the 1960s, and two per year in the 1950s.

Hmmm … I thought, eyeballing the data, it looks kinda exponential to me. (p. 289)

So the present of the novel, the late 1990s, is the hinge point for its timeline. The early twenty-first century is only lightly sketched, and the next period the novel focuses on is the early 2030s, as far ahead of the ‘90s as Moira’s childhood is behind it, when she is living in a commune in the Berkeley hills and the exponential worsening has really started to bite. “There it was,” Moira tells us, “the world of the Overshoot. Greenhouse Earth, the greatest catastrophe in the history of civilisation, which had crept up on us unawares, like a thief in the night” (p. 10). Clee plays all the hits: hot by 6 a.m., overcast with smog, much of the East Bay under water, the overall climate more extreme, basic infrastructure collapsing. But one of Moira’s living-partners has hacked into the files of a mysterious project calling itself Green Man: is salvation at hand?

The answer is yes, and the convenience of this salvation is probably the reason that Overshoot is not a widely remembered novel. Miles and Li, it turns out, have met up behind the scenes, and been working on a retroviral gene therapy that, they believe, will restore an ecological sense that has been selected out of homo sapiens genomes as civilisation has developed. They plan to release it globally; those infected will be, they promise, “conscious of other people, of animals, of the world turning beneath your feet”—and therefore will make inherently more environmentally aware decisions. They have qualms about this plan, which is decent of them I suppose, but it doesn’t stop them releasing the virus and rewiring the mass of humanity. And it works. Closing ruminations from Moira about how close a call this was (“there was a world in which we really did crash and burn” [p. 380]), however, don’t make its ending any less of a get-out-of-jail-free card, especially at the close of a novel that appeared to be about how comprehensively we have been building ourselves a jail.

So that’s the first of two reasons why I introduced Overshoot as only almost paradigmatic: it doesn’t play fair with its payoff. Note that the existence of the save, per se, is not the problem. Definitionally, an overshoot is temporary, not the final steady-state configuration of a system, so a rebalancing mechanism is fair enough; but this one doesn’t feel reasonable on either realist or moral grounds. The second reason, however, is that although Overshoot contains this overshot narrative within it, the novel’s actual structure is not strictly linear. I don’t mean just that Moira is, as you will have spotted, telling her story in retrospect, although that is part of it. Rather, the most potent overshoot novels maintain a foreground/background neutrality that is lacking in Overshoot-the-novel: Moira likes to make sure we’ve spotted the things that are going to matter later on. There is also a framing narrative set in 2032; Moira’s life is told in flashbacks. Going back to my earlier notation, then, the structure of Overshoot is YAYBYCYDYEYEYEYE[P]YZ, which means that as a reading experience, it is similar to the ZA[P] braid, as in The History of Bees, in which we know the destination from the start. But I’m not abandoning the word, because it still feels more experientially accurate than any other word I’ve tried out, and because here in 2022 I feel a kinship with Moira. When I’m reading an overshoot novel, part of me is approaching that text in exactly the way that Moira looks back at her own life in Overshoot: listening for the <<THUD>>.

Narrative in the Anthropocene coverSo: an overshoot novel is a linear mosaic novel whose timeline starts in the past, and tells a story that will only resolve in the future, thereby creating a sense of necessity for that future to be shown and to be believed in, as well as for the stories of human characters to be resolved. How does this structure of narrative achieve these effects?

A shallow dive into theory may help. To start from a very basic premise, stories are a mechanism for producing and processing emotional responses in readers. The characteristics of a narrative will mediate this process, and one important category in narrative theory, from Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse [8] onwards, is the nature of the temporal relationships between story (the sequence of events; Moira’s life story) and discourse (the presentation and reception of a story; the flashback structure of Overshoot and my reading of it in 2022). These relationships include things like the order in which events are narrated, the duration of events, and the frequency of events. Order is straightforward here—an overshoot novel as I understand it is linearly told. [9] Duration is typically understood in a pseudo-spatial manner, in which time is passing within the novel at X hours per page, or perhaps Y days per page, speeding up or slowing down as the author chooses. This is also relatively straightforward in the context of an overshoot novel: individual mosaic tiles can vary wildly in their duration, but the characteristic feature of duration in an overshoot novel as a whole is the presence between these tiles of gaps—or, in Genette’s terminology, ellipses—that jump the narrative forward across large timeframes.

Frequency is more complex, and may be the most interesting of the three. For Genette, frequency relates to the occurrence of events within narratives. Probably most narration is what Genette calls singulative: that is, it narrates once an event that happened once, as in his example sentence “yesterday, I went to bed early.” But each side of that equation can be varied: for instance, an event that happened once can be narrated multiple times (the Rashomon approach), or an event that has happened multiple times can be narrated once (“Every day of the week I went to bed early”). This latter approach Genette calls iterative, and he further highlights that many instances of this type of narration are in fact pseudo-iterative, in that they invoke an event taking place multiple times, but with a level of detail that makes it implausible that they actually happened in precisely that way in every iteration. [10] In the context of an overshoot novel, this leads to the question of what counts as an event, which leads us away from narrative for a moment, and towards the question of content.

The majority of overshoot novels which I have encountered or been able to research are, like Overshoot, focused on environmental, anthropocene-era concerns. We might call these “green overshoot” novels. There are certainly exceptions—Baxter’s Evolution, for instance, takes place over a timescale that dwarfs the anthropocene—so I don’t suggest this as a necessary characteristic of an overshoot novel, but it makes sense to me that it is a common one, for the oft-discussed reason that the anthropocene takes place over a longer timescale than most novels. As Adam Trexler argues in his essential survey Anthropocene Fictions, [11] in practice “climate change is not just a ‘theme’ in fiction. It remakes basic narrative operations” (p. 233). The use of novel narrative structures is a logical part of this process.

In fact, I think green overshoot novels could potentially be understood in terms of Brian Attebery’s concept of narrative parabolas, coined in a 2005 essay and later elaborated with Veronica Hollinger as “combinations of meaningful setting, character, and action that lend themselves to endless redefinition and jazzlike improvisation.” [12] Attebery and Hollinger frame parabolas as a way of bringing together multiple ideas from narrative theory—John Cawelti’s concept of “fictional formulas,” Philippe Hamon’s “megatext,” Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope”—but they are most easily understood by pointing to examples. A generation starship, for instance, is in this context more than just a trope, because its invocation implies a suite of narrative features—particular character types, settings, and events. But it is not a formula. Instead, a generation starship story is on a parabolic trajectory: “whereas fictional formulas govern a story from beginning to end, science fictional parabolas take us from the known to the unknown” (p. viii). That describes the trajectory of an overshoot novel precisely, and this perhaps shouldn’t surprise us: after all our planet, spaceship Earth, can be understood as a kind of generation starship.

The value of identifying green overshoot novels as variants of a particular parabola is that it helps us to think about the narrative features and types of events they are likely to contain. So now we go back to frequency. Erin James, in her brilliant Narrative in the Anthropocene, [13] points out that the power of the iterative as a narrative technique is its capacity for establishing various different types of relationship between a single event and a chain of events, including events of long duration. But she argues that the approach is by definition limited to operating within the timeframe of the story being told, and in most cases, climate change will exceed that timeframe; this remains true even of the elongated timeframes of overshoot novels. She therefore proposes what she calls the pseudo-singular:

… in which readers encounter an event in a narrative as singular, whereas its richness and historical familiarity ensures that no reader can realistically believe it occurs as disconnected from earlier events known from other contexts that exist outside of the text. [...] While the pseudo-iterative calls the authenticity of repetition into question, the pseudo-singular casts doubt upon the disconnected nature of events, such that it implicates an event in a narrative with well-known sequences from real-world history and/or other narratives. (p. 102)

She further subdivides this into the implicit pseudo-singular, which never comments on the relationship of an event to the world outside the text, and the explicit pseudo-singular, which does. Both have obvious potential uses within climate change novels in general, and green overshoot novels in particular. Moira’s <<THUD>> file, for instance, is an explicitly pseudo-singular narrative, setting out for the reader links between events that the author is concerned will not otherwise seem connected; it relies on the decades-long timeframe of the story, and the blending of real and fictional examples, to be effective. The Bone Clocks, by contrast, uses implicit pseudo-singular narrative when each of its sections grazes the subject of oil politics, before showing us their ultimate consequences.

James also identifies another technique worth mentioning. For Genette, narration and description are incompatible: narration is definitionally the representation of events, and description is definitionally the representation of things that are not events. James argues that in the context of a slower-than-human process, description can be a signifier of an event having happened, or of an ongoing event—what she terms an effect-event. Effect-events are not necessarily recognisable as such to characters within a narrative, but they are to readers, who can understand the context that is causing them. A common example in narratives set in the near future is description of a hot day, which readers are to understand as evidence of ongoing climate change, even if that link is nowhere commented on in the text. In the context of an overshoot novel, a sequence of effect-event descriptions in different sections of the novel is, I’d suggest, one of the main drivers of the sense of momentum that I’ve discussed above: something is happening in the background, outside of the human frame of reference.

Taken together, effect-events, implicit or explicit pseudo-singular narration, and imposition of chronology on a mosaic give us some sense of the narratological tools that green overshoot novels use to create their effects on readers. There is also what I referred to earlier as a foreground/background distinction, or consideration of what is and is not narrated in the text. Narrative theory is inherently interested in gaps in narrative, and how readers respond to them. In the context of fiction dealing with climate change, Astrid Bracke suggests that M. L. Ryan’s “principle of minimal departure”—that readers will assume a storyworld resembles their own until told otherwise—provides a powerful framework for interpreting reader experience. [14] She proposes that climate fiction follows a stepwise process:

… first depicting a textual actual world that is very close to readers’ actual world, providing cues that give them little reason to suspect that circumstances and developments might be different. Next, however, the narrative extends this familiar world into the unfamiliar, generally without the narrator stepping in to explicitly guide readers in navigating this new space. [...] the narratives reflect something of the epistemological uncertainty that defines today’s unpredictable climate crisis, full of known and unknown quantities. (p. 174)

Bracke has primarily in mind novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s superb Flight Behaviour (2012), whose deviations from our reality remain minimal throughout. I don’t find this satisfying as a model for climate fiction tout court, because I prefer a broader definition, which may include settings that are already radically different than our own (including fantastical climate settings). But it is a good description of how overshoot stories are structured, and a good explanation of why their usual iceberg-like structure, of spending time with the “this” of “if this goes on” and only then crossing over into the future, can be so effective.

Mischief Acts coverOne of the best novels I read in 2022 was an overshoot; and if I’ve done my job at all well, by now you have a kind of default idea of an overshoot novel in your head, and I can focus my time on the ways Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert elaborates on or deviates from that norm.

Mischief Acts is a complexly organised novel about the life cycle of a myth, specifically Herne the Hunter, an English forest spirit and trickster; and as befitting such a subject, we begin in a grove, albeit not a vegetative one. Specifically we begin with an introductory essay from academe, attributed to Professor Lizbet Gore, who is not a real person, affiliated with Trevone College, which is not a real institution (although Trevone is a village in Cornwall), and dated to 2021, which is certainly the real year of the novel. In her remarks, Professor Gore introduces Herne as a mythic figure associated with the Great North Wood that used to cover South London, and argues for his essence as a “rascally psychopomp” (p. 1): a shapeshifter, mutated and recombined over time with other figures such as Robin Hood, the Green Man, the Harlequin, and others from further afield. “The episodes related below,” she tells us, “reveal the trials and triumphs of one myth through time and ever-shifting space” (p. 1); she ends with a prediction that, with the twenty-first century’s increased interest in the protection of nature and even rewilding of areas, “we might expect” a myth such as Herne “to take advantage of this turn” (p. 4). If we glanced at the contents page on our way into the book, we might note that “the episodes below” comprise more than Professor Gore seems to be aware of. The sixteen chronologically arranged mischief acts are divided into three sections: “Enchantment” (five stories, 1392-1691), “Disenchantment” (eight stories, 1760-2011), and then “Re-enchantment” (three stories, 2042-2073). It seems the first thirteen stories are understood by Professor Gore as fictions, but what is the status of the three that overshoot her? Where have they come from?

Not that there aren’t questions about the early stories as well. Although the myth is old, the first written account of Herne the Hunter is generally agreed to be that by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor, believed to have been written in 1597 or thereabouts; yet three of the mischief acts pre-date this milestone. Collectively they provide an origin story that underpins the rest of the book. In a verse-tale that we are told dates from 1392, Herne sacrifices himself during a royal hunt to save his king from death-by-white-stag, but is then resurrected by a sorcerer, Bearman. In his resurrected form, Herne carries the stag’s antlers on his own head but is cursed to no longer be able to hunt; he is soon found hanged, but it seems this has only caused the curse to transfer to the king’s other hunters. In desperation they speak to Bearman, who directs them to the Great Oak in the forest, where they find themselves reunited with a risen Herne, who now (we understand) has become the promised psychopomp, bound up with the forest itself, and who leads them on a cold wild hunt. In the second tale, dated to 1451, we are given a version of Bearman’s motivation: Bearman’s daughter claims that she loved Herne when he was mortal, and that her father’s resurrection and cursing of him was a form of punishment for that love. The rest was collateral damage. In the third tale, dated to 1500, we find the wood transforming around Herne for the first time. “England flickers in the dawning light of the renaissance,” the narrator writes (the first other than Professor Gore to address the reader so directly), “and the forest is remade [...] a self-conscious paean to the fantasies of classical antiquity” (p. 54). It’s hardly a minimal departure: the forest is now a place of dryads and water-spirits, and Herne’s hunt is now layered with the tang of sex. “Enchantment is a state of mind,” Professor Gore warned us; the narrator of this tale elaborates that enchantment is “to be enthralled, mesmerised, pixilated, daft,” and above all, “to incant” (p. 60). This is how the wood has changed, and will continue to change: because different stories are being told about it, and Herne has to find his place in them.

On through the centuries we tumble, meeting Herne, Bearman, and the daughter in different configurations within different versions of the forest. In 1606, Herne haunts Robert Burman over the twelve days of Christmas, performing increasingly wild and outrageous acts for which Burman takes the blame. In 1691, Herne is a highwayman (or possibly highwaywoman), inspiring feverish lust in the women of Gallows Green. In 1760—and here we enter the era of disenchantment—Herne is implied for the first time to have had a hand in documented history, acting as a secret tutor to Ann Catley, a singer and aspirant actress, and spiriting her away to the forest after she escapes from captivity at Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland. By 1797 the effect-event that is industrial capitalism has replaced renaissance fantasy as the regulating idea in the forest, and Herne too appears to only be present in his effects, tempting an old gardener to sneak some wild into his work, as vengeance against the ongoing acts of enclosure. More such acts follow that the book would like us to understand as pseudo-singular (if we believe in Herne): in 1936, Herne is implicated in the burning of Crystal Palace, and the unforecast storm of October 1987 may have been Herne straining to be heard. The last stop in the part of the book that Professor Gore knows about is a brutally mundane tale of a failing marriage in 2011. Kate and Richard have an argument, which seems to be a regular occurrence; this time Kate makes a joke about sleeping with their gardener, and Richard takes offence and accuses her of meaning it. She didn’t, except on the level that she did, but he stalks out, and on the way to the pub a tree drops a branch on his head, and the rest of the story alternates between snapshots of Richard’s death and decay, and Kate’s initial pleasure in his absence, then creeping desperation when it becomes clear he is not going to return. That’s the story: except for the fact that their surname is Berryman, which is why I put the branchfall that did for Richard in the active tense.

If Professor Gore’s book originally ended here, it had a pretty bleak and unsatisfactory ending. So it’s good from that point of view that we get to overshoot into the re-enchantment stories; though perhaps not so good given what we find there. The world of June 2042 could be the same one that Moira Burke inhabits. Laura, Kate and Richard’s daughter (the first character since Bearman’s daughter in 1451 to bridge stories), runs through her “Beat the Heat” to-do list, having forgotten that her water is already being rationed to every other day, and looks for news about her pending relocation, as part of the planned rewilding of the forest. This is a straight science-fiction speculation with no room for Herne, in other words, except that we’ve been primed by everything else we’ve read to see his hand in the rewilding, a gesture towards rebalancing that the ongoing world storm so clearly requires. [15] In 2064 the rewilding is fully underway, and we learn that a few years earlier there was a sighting of a murmuration in the shape of a stag’s head, and that now a child has been lost in the new wild wood; and in 2073, told once again in verse, the forest itself seems to narrate, and has raised that child into a renewal of Herne, now called Herndon, who is somehow also the daughter that Bearman once lost to Herne. Herne is not a saviour: throughout the book he has been cruel as often as kind, meaningless as often as meaningful: but there is a kind of relief in this new unity, or as the poem has it, “a strange song / ending and beginning” (p. 413).

But even now the book is not yet done with us. There is an appendix, the transcript of a talk called “The Birth of Myth” by D. Ferraro, delivered to students at Enleigh College and undated, but—if it is as real as Professor Gore’s introduction—it must have been composed at some point after 2073, because in the course of the talk Ferraro footnotes each of the stories we have just read, alongside a selection of actually-existing works such as John-Paul Patton’s The Poet’s Ogam: A Living Magical Tradition from 2011. So maybe what we’ve been reading is a revised and expanded edition of the book that Professor Gore originally introduced, maybe myths are now understood as real again, and maybe those final three stories document an actual return of magic to the actual world, Herne helping to save us from ourselves? But I think not: Mischief Acts may be playful, but it doesn’t cheat. Herne is not a homeostatic mechanism; he is not reliably helpful or under our control in that way. He is not Moira Burke’s Green Man. Herne is an embodiment of humanity’s own regulative potential, and I think the final three stories are, like the rest of the book, not literal documentation but tools shaped to help us understand what has happened in the world. D. Ferraro ends with a familiar phrase, which can be read as a plea: “enchantment is a state of mind.” What Ferraro and Gore both mean, or hope, I think, is something that is not always a given in overshoot novels: we have changed before, and we can change again.


[1] David Mitchell, “Genesis”. The Guardian, 16 April 2005. [Accessed January 2023] [return]

[2] See tweets by Monica Byrne on 22 August 2022, here and here [Accessed January 2023] [return]

[3] Science Fiction Encyclopedia, “Fixup”. [Accessed January 2023] [return]

[4] Ursula K. Heise, “Science Fiction and the Time Scales of the Anthropocene,” ELH vol. 86, no. 2, 2019, pp. 275-304. [return]

[5] Some mosaics—like the first few Foundation books—are “fixups,” a term first used by A. E. Van Vogt to describe post hoc assemblies of individually published stories; in principle, some chapters of the novels I’ve mentioned could be published separately, although I’m not aware of any that have been. [return]

[6] Science Fiction Encyclopedia, “Slingshot”. [Accessed January 2023] [return]

[7] Science Fiction Encyclopedia, “Will McIntosh”. [Accessed January 2023] [return]

[8] Gerard Genette (translated by Jane E. Lewin), Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, Cornell University Press, 1980. [return]

[9] There are some interesting variants where the overall trajectory is still from past to future, but within that there’s a bit of skipping around. Sara Taylor’s The Shore (2015), for instance, has the structure IDGAFGEBECY[P]Z. [return]

[10] For instance, the opening of Ian R. MacLeod’s 2001 novella, New Light on the Drake Equation: “As he did on the first Wednesday of every month, after finishing off the bottle of wine he’d fallen asleep with, and then drinking three bleary fingers of absinthe, and with an extra slug for good measure, Tom Kelly drove down into St. Hilaire to collect his mail and provisions.” Probably some weeks he had two bleary fingers of absinthe, some weeks he had four, and some weeks there is no mail waiting; and indeed it turns out that on this occasion, it’s not even a Wednesday. But we understand the underlying routine. [return]

[11] Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, University of Virginia Press, 2015. [return]

[12] Brian Attebery, and Veronica Hollinger, introduction to Parabolas of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2013, p. vii. [return]

[13] Erin James, Narrative in the Anthropocene, Ohio State University Press, 2022. [return]

[14] Astrid Bracke, “Worldmaking Environmental Crisis Climate Fiction, Econarratology, and Genre,” in Erin James and Eric Morel (eds.), Environment and Narrative: New Directions in Econarratology, Ohio State University Press, 2020. [return]

[15] John Clute uses “world storm” as an encompassing description for history since 1750, that date being an approximation of when three things started to exponentiate. (John Clute, Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm, Beccon Publications, 2011.) Two of them I have already noted in this piece: the disenchanting progress of the enlightenment, and the onset of industrial capitalism. The third is that writers in English started in numbers to compose fictional works whose content is understood to be fantastic, which, although probably not intended by Zoe Gilbert, adds another layer to our understanding of the mischief acts collected in her book. [return]


Editors: Reviews Department

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is a former editor of Strange Horizons, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Science FictionFoundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a Guest of Honor at the 2023 British National Science Fiction Convention. His collection All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays is available from Briardene Books.
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